August 15th was an extra special Holy Day in my home town of Athenry. ‘The Feast of the Assumption of The Virgin Mary’ was very personal to us, since we had our own ‘Blessed Well’ dedicated to her, one mile from the Square. The year was 1931.
With a population of just over one thousand, the town was made up of a market square and five very short streets, a Norman Castle and rampart. The former, I think was built in the tenth century as an extra home for English King John, though he never used it.
We had a double line railway junction, three hotels, two banks, an early Dominican Abbey, a convent school, a dilapidated boys’ school and more public houses than customers. Cars were not to be seen until 1934 and the street lighting was non existent until 1937, apart from a local generator which provided light for some private houses. Most of us managed with oil lamps downstairs and candles in the bedrooms. We cooked on an old fashioned coal fire range.
Throughout my childhood we had monthly cattle and sheep fairs on the streets and horse fairs twice a year – but that is another story.
Lady’s Day, as the fifteenth was known, brought hundreds of people of all ages into the area, each one determined to ask for personal favours, or to give thanksgiving for a wish that had been granted. They arrived by rail, pony and trap, horse and donkey carts and new and well rusted bicycles were much in evidence. Many of the pilgrims had arthritic and other physical complaints. But it was a day to forget discomfort.
Stall holders had been arriving from Dublin all night, determined to make the most of the crowds. As locals, we were fascinated by what we called their ‘funny accents’. It was possible to buy china, kitchen equipment, religious objects, footwear, clothes, fruit, in fact everything including farm implements. Local shops had restocked with pale blue rosaries, medals on silver chains, some of dubious quality and pictures of the Virgin Mother, each shopkeeper wishing the stalls be prohibited. How I longed for just one penny to be able to sample a bag of savory dried seaweed, known as Dulisk, or a stick of tooth-breaking Peggy’s Leg brown rock. At that period most people dressed in drab, dark colours. Not so the Fish women who arrived from Galway in their bright red flannel petticoats, well below their dark skirts, their full size beige or black shawls covering their heads and calves of their black stockinged legs.
One of my greatest pleasures as a child was to mingle with the crowds and stand and gaze at the amusement stalls. ‘The Roll a Penny in the Square’ stall, the coconut stalls and the shooting gallery. I spent hours watching and listening to the bare chested fat man, challenging his audience to guess his weight, and win a whole five shillings. The good looking blonde young man who balances a metal rimmed cart wheel on his chin fascinated and frightened me at the same time. Young men formed a circle around him full of admiration. Prospective candidates promised utopia while balancing on top of Guinness barrels. I followed the street musicians and singers to perform in quieter streets while I marvelled at the nimble footwork of the male step-dancers.
It was time to visit The Well. I followed the crowds down the narrow country road and opened the five bar wooden gate to the field where The Well was situated. It was protected on three sides by a low whitewashed stone wall. A male parishioner had volunteered to take charge for the day. For one penny he gave us a tin mug of cool crystal clear water which had been recently blessed, or for two pence he filled individual water bottles to take home to sprinkle on each family member asking the Virgin Mary’s Blessing. We also sprayed some in each of our rooms for the same reason. The remainder was kept as an aid to sickness in the household.
The ground around The Well had a fresh layer of sharp stone chippings. It was time to circle The Well and offer up the Rosary individually, which could take about twenty minutes. I watched elderly people remove their shoes and stockings and walk around it bare footed. I have even seen some crawl on their bare knees praying. I removed my sand shoes (plimsolls) and tried to imitate the other pilgrims. Within three minutes my feet were bleeding and I gave up, feeling convinced that I was a poor Catholic.
Next I moved to a flat square stone with a deep indentation. It was purported to be a fragment of an ancient altar stone used by priests while in hiding from Cromwell’s troops. Most people left a token of thanksgiving in that indentation, but such was the poverty in those days, they had nothing to leave but coloured buttons, hair clips, hairpins, safety pins and one penny. I had a great battle with that penny on one occasion. It would buy me a bag of green, black and red jelly babies. I reached to take it and little Miss Quinn shook her head from side to side, then she looked straight at me and raised her eyes up to Heaven. I felt terribly guilty and changed my mind. Miss Quinn of all people, was close to God. After all she had visited Lourdes on one occasion.Would she remind God of my Great Temptation, or even worse, would she tell my father?
I moved to a very large wooden Crucifix erected on a grassy slope opposite. My conscience was still playing havoc with me. I would try and avoid Miss Quinn in future. The pilgrims were on their way into town. I followed.
Much later I watched the stalls being dismantled and taken to the station in sections.
I found my mother behind the counter checking the day’s takings. By ten o’clock the town had returned to its normal sleepy state.
My father was in the kitchen preparing cheese and beetroot for me. ‘What have you seen today?’ he said. I told him everything except the incident with the penny. He rubbed my head. He reached up to the fireside cupboard and found his precious gold and black penny tin whistle. ‘What tune would you like?’ he asked. ‘ The Irish Washerwoman, please’, I said as I tapped my feet on my chair legs to the lively beat. ‘Get up to bed and don’t forget your prayers’, he said.
I climbed the narrow stairs. It seemed such a long time to wait until Saturday to confess my sins and hope to receive absolution.
Written by Margaret O'Connell
Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published August 1991
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